The book, Permanent Record by Edward Snowden, is another reminder of the fragile privacy because of the assault by corporations and governments on the internet, turning the vast frontier of freedom and privacy into a tool of profit and spying. Snowden was a CIA and NSA employee before he fled to Hong Kong where he handed over sensitive material to journalist Glenn Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras, revealing the clandestine activities of the United States government in obtaining secret communications of people anywhere, including US citizens.
Citizenfour, as Snowden called himself, was a documentary film in which Poitras captured the now legendary conversation with Snowden at the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong. In Washington, there is another whistleblower who has stirred up the impeachment inquiry against President Trump. However, like the good and bad Taliban, there are likable and hateable whistleblowers. Snowden doesn’t have much support in mainstream US media or the power system in Washington.
In the book, Snowden highlighted the business side of the surveillance state, the privatisation of spying. In order to get an intelligence job that requires a security clearance, the government spends about a year in clearing an applicant, after which the candidate rushes to the private sector exchanging the government’s blue badge with the private contractor’s green badge. Snowden said, “The joke was that the green symbolized ‘money’.’’ A computer expert would be sitting inside a CIA or NSA facility but would not be a US government employee, and instead serve a private contractor, which would be catering to the needs of the Intelligence Community (IC). Snowden says he always wanted to serve his government, but ended up working for it —making a very thought-provoking distinction.
Snowden recalls an episode where he went to his then employer’s office, COMSO. He was getting paid $30,000 a year by his previous employer CASL. At COMSO’s office, he asked for $50,000. “When I named that figure to the guy behind the desk, he said, ‘What about $60K?’” At the time, Snowden didn’t understand this unexpected generosity but later realised that these contractors actually billed the US government for the salary they paid their employees along with a three to five per cent commission. The guy eventually talked Snowden into accepting a $62,000 salary and, before departing, said, “If all goes well, we’ll never meet again.” In other words, keep spying on citizens, make no noise, and we will keep billing the US government.
The world is no more subjected to the whims of the Military-Industrial Complex alone but rather the Intelligence-Industrial Complex as well. While the contractors doing the dirty work of espionage afforded the US government, precisely the CIA, the ability to claim plausible deniability, it also enriched many newly propping up contractors. Not to mention, the huge burden on tax dollars because the US government spends resources in vetting a candidate for security clearance. That candidate then goes on to work for a private contractor where his ridiculously high salary is paid by the US government along with the contractor’s commission.
The green on blue badge reminds me of the green on blue attacks in Afghanistan, where a green uniform-wearing Afghan Army soldier uses his gun against the blue uniform-wearing NATO soldier who is there to train the Afghan in the art of warfare. While that is treated as a major threat to the safety and security of the US personnel, the green badge on blue badge is not. The irony is that for as long as there would be green badge over blue badge profiteers in Washington and Virginia, there would be green on blue attacks everywhere because when war and spying become business, then the only thing that matters is the bottom line. While the governments’ illegal and immoral actions are drained down the Orwellian hole, the people’s innocent and immoral actions become their permanent record.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 7th, 2019.